In killings, sect suffers a new bloody chapter

Colony that lost 2 to Mexico's gangs has long known adversity

The Houston Chronicle/July 11, 2009

Colonia LeBARON, Mexico - Sustained by a stubborn resolve to live as they feel God commands them, the people of this American-founded outpost in northern Mexico's dry lands find themselves besieged again by mortal menace.

Two leaders of Colonia LeBaron, a community of 1,000 who follow what they hold to be a bedrock Mormon faith, were snatched from their homes Tuesday morning and shot repeatedly as a warning to others who might defy Mexico's criminal lords.

Killed was Benjamin "Benji" LeBaron, 31, a slight yet spirited man who had taken his family's battle with crime to Mexico's national stage this spring after the abduction for ransom of a 16-year-old brother.

Dying beside him was Luis "Wicho" Widmar, 29, a linebacker-sized martial arts devotee who was Benji's brother-in-law and lifelong friend and who had tried to fight off Benji's attackers.

Their slayings are the latest chapter in the storied lives of a family community with historical ties that reach into Texas, Arizona and Utah and whose people have long confronted adversity, even among their own.

Founded by Benji's great-grandfather, the colony is one of several surviving communities established by Mormon pilgrims in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many colonists were fleeing the United States after the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy.

Feud, assassination

In the early 1970s, Benji's grandfather Joel LeBaron and great-uncle Ervil LeBaron fell into a bitter feud over leadership of the clan's Church of the Firstborn of the Fulness of Times.

One of Ervil's followers assassinated Joel in Baja California 36 years ago. Others killed several dozen more people in the ensuing years, including two in Houston, for which a handful of Ervil's children were sentenced in 1997 to long prison terms.

The LeBarons and their followers saw themselves as ordained to create the conditions for the return to Earth of Jesus Christ and his prophesied reign. But the men of the LeBaron clan were ex-communicated more than 60 years ago for their insistence on maintaining plural wives.

Many younger members have since discontinued the practice of polygamy.

Benji had 51 brothers and sisters. Wicho had 24. The two victims each left behind a widow and five children under the age of 7.

"Those who killed these men have no children. They have no mother or father," Adrian LeBaron, Benji's uncle, said at the funeral service Thursday attended by more than 2,000 people, including Chihuahua state's governor and attorney general and people from as far away as Iowa. "They are the spawn of evil."

Inequity indeed stalks Mexico, killing more than 3,000 people in 18 months and tormenting hundreds more with kidnapping in Chihuahua state alone. Now it's come to the sparsely peopled farmlands surrounding the LeBaron Colony, about 200 miles southwest of the border at El Paso.

Defiant response

When Benji's brother Eric was abducted in May, his captors demanded a $1 million ransom. Eric's family and friends didn't have that kind of money. A group of 150 men from the colony voted and agreed to defy the kidnappers.

Hundreds of the colony's residents and people from nearby communities flowed into the central plaza of Chihuahua City, the state capital, demanding authorities take action. Eric was mysteriously released soon afterward, ransom unpaid.

Benji gave frequent interviews to local and national media in recent months, led other caravans to the capital calling for a crackdown on crime and attended the graduation of elite state police units.

He became a hero for the many in Chihuahua sickened by gangsters and violence.

"We have been afraid, haven't known how to speak," Alejandro Rodriguez, from a farm village a 2-hour drive from Colonia LeBaron, said at the men's graveside Thursday. "We've suffered the silence of the good people."

But fame made targets of both Benji and his community.

"He was so outspoken. That was the reason for this," Nathan LeBaron, 58, who was directing the hundreds of cars arriving for the funeral, said of Benji. "If we hadn't stood up they wouldn't have bothered us."

Dual citizens

Many of the colony's families have carved prosperous lives farming pecans, alfalfa and other crops in Mexico. Mostly bilingual dual citizens of Mexico and the United States, many colony members spend years working and living north of the border while retaining a strong attachment to their land here.

"We work up north so we can come back here and build," said Brent LeBaron, 27, a cousin of Benji's. "This is home to us."

Both Benji and Wicho were regarded as fearless family men by those who mourned them this week.

A motto on small paper fans given to people inside the meeting hall where the service was held said what many felt: "I prefer to die a slave of principle, than to live a slave of men."

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